Dr. Max Ballin

Jewish Detroit's First Great Surgeon

The foremost surgeon of his time in Michigan, Dr. Max Ballin was born in Germany in 1869. He studied at Nordhausen, Prussia and studied medicine at Munich and Freiburg before receiving his medical degree from the University of Berlin in 1892 at the age of 23.

Following the mandated military service and medical training in a private clinic, Dr. Ballin immigrated to the United States in 1896, settling in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado as the surgeon for the American Smelting Company. In 1901, he was persuaded to venture across the Midwest to Detroit by University of Michigan professor Dr. Donald MacLean, the “Dean of Michigan Surgeons”. Dr. MacLean had been visiting his brother in Leadville and was wholly impressed by Dr. Ballin and his surgical skills.

Dr. Ballin practiced at the North End Clinic on Hastings Street, the former Hannah Schloss Building Clinic, where his staff maintained religious services until 1920, and where he remained a consultant long after being appointed as consulting surgeon to Detroit’s Harper Hospital in 1906.

At Harper, Dr. Ballin had a long and accomplished career. He became attending surgeon in 1908 and was appointed Chief of the Department of Surgery in 1917, a position he held until 1933, when he was transferred, at his personal insistence, from the active to the consulting staff.  He served with distinction in the Army Medical Corps during World War I, and continued to serve on the hospital’s board of trustees throughout the remainder of his practicing years.

Throughout these many roles, Dr. Ballin was instrumental in the development of Harper Hospital. He worked to improve recordkeeping, to increase specialization among physicians, and to improve teaching, not only of interns, but also the continued professional development of attending physicians. During his tenure as Chief of Staff, Dr. Ballin commissioned his friend, renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn, to draw up plans to expand the hospital.

Dr. Ballin was also heavily involved in a growing debate regarding the establishment of a Jewish hospital in Detroit. Debate was lengthy and often testy. Advocates argued that a Jewish hospital would provide staffing opportunities that medical clinics could not. Dr. Ballin joined colleagues Hugo Freund, David Levy and many of Detroit’s most prominent Jewish physicians in opposition to such a plan. They argued that there were simply not enough Jewish doctors to necessitate such an undertaking. Other issues related to the development of a Jewish hospital included laws of kashrut in the kitchens, whether there truly was discrimination against Jewish doctors in Detroit’s existing hospitals, and a general divisiveness between German and Eastern European Jews.

Although not deeply religious, Dr. Ballin remained steadfast in his Jewish identity. He refused a lucrative and high ranking position at a clinic in Germany that required conversion to Christianity. Citing Dr. Ballin’s eulogy in the Detroit Medical News, Irving Edgar, a historian of Michigan’s Jewish physicians, notes that he had “the opportunity to continue his career in Berlin at a famous obstetric and gynecologic clinic. … Dr. Max Ballin declined it, …as it involved a change in religious faith.”

Dr. Max Ballin died in Detroit on March 3, 1934. His colleagues regarded him as a “careful observer, whose list of publications evidences the versatility of his interests.” In the years leading up to his death, he had done outstanding work in the surgery of the thyroid and the parathyroid.

On writing Dr. Ballin’s memoir for the 1934 Annals of Surgery journal, colleague Fred T. Murphy, M.D., observed that in the death of Dr. Ballin, the staff of Harper Hospital had lost “a great and good man… who stood before the community as the ideal physician – in skill, in industrious application to his calling, in understanding and helpfulness to the afflicted… and stood before us, his co-workers in the field of medicine, as the embodiment of all that we would like to be.”

In 1938, four years after Dr. Ballin’s death, public tide began to turn in favor of a Jewish hospital. Two studies regarding the necessity and fiscal feasibility helped to move that agenda forward, and in 1951, ground was broken on Sinai Hospital (now DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital), on West Outer Drive and Schaeffer Highway. It opened its doors in January 1953.


For more information:

Bolkosky, Sidney M. Harmony & Dissonance: Voices of Jewish Identity in Detroit, 1914-1967. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Edgar, Irving Iskowitz. A history of early Jewish physicians in the state of Michigan. New York: Philosophical Library, 1982.

Murphy, Fred T. “Max Ballin, M.D. 1869-1934,” Annals of Surgery. 100(5) pp 1034-35. Nov. 1934. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1390206/

 Saltzstein, Harry C. Sinai Hospital and the North End Clinic; Reminiscences of the History of the Jewish Hospital Movement in Detroit. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1963.

back to top